COVID shutdowns put northern border towns on the brink

Niagara Falls, NY, faces unique challenges as state reopens

Ask any Western New Yorker who has a better view of Niagara Falls – Americans or Canadians – and you’ll get a stern look and a quick reply.

"My grandfather always said, 'Would you rather look at a beautiful woman from a distance your whole life, or have her standing beside you?'" quipped one lifelong resident.  

Niagara Falls, N.Y., is situated on the east side of the natural wonder it shares with Canada. A bend in the river cuts off direct view of the "Horseshoe," Niagara’s most stunning waterfall. Since the northern border closed to nonessential travel in March 2020, the only way Americans can get a good look at it is to ride the famous ferry boat "Maid of the Mist."

"The closing of the border is really like cutting off a neighborhood," says Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino, a Democrat. "So many people here have a favorite restaurant or store there, so many folks in Niagara Falls, Ontario, vice versa. So, it's more than just a tourism piece, it really is a pretty significant piece of the local economy."

Niagara Falls, Ontario seen from the New York side.

Niagara Falls, Ontario seen from the New York side.

Niagara Falls is one of many border towns across the country facing similar problems. The combination of shutting down the border and state COVID lockdowns has been a double whammy for local businesses.

"Canadians spend a lot of money in Niagara County in a given year. We have research from 2019 that shows $59 million was spent by Canadians on Visa cards in Niagara County in 2019, so it's a big impact for us," says Andrea Czopp, vice president of operations for Destination Niagara USA.

"The rules are changing every day still," says Eamon Weber, owner of Wine On Third. "We're obviously going to play by the rules, we want to be as safe as possible. We want all of our customers be as safe as possible, the employees safe as possible. But we are still kind of in that, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, mentality."

The decision to reopen the border is reevaluated by the Department of Homeland Security every 30 days, but Mayor Restaino says that is not helpful.

"We're not getting any gauge of whether we're moving in the right direction, or things are going really, really bad. There's no information that comes out with that, it's just an extension and extension," says Restaino.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling on President Biden to open the border as quickly as possible.

"It's well past time for the American and Canadian governments to give the countless stakeholders along the northern border the clarity they deserve, and to get moving on opening up this border," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., during a press conference at the border last week.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, says concerns go beyond the economy, and that too much attention at the southern border is causing a strain on Customs and Border Protection resources.

In an exclusive statement to Fox, Stefanik says:

"Over the past several weeks, I have heard from many whistleblowers from the U.S. Border Patrol expressing grave concerns over the lack of manpower along our northern border, as agents are being transferred to clean up President Biden’s crisis in the south. The few agents that remain are forced to virtually process illegal immigrants in Texas, leaving only a handful to patrol the entire New York border and zero to patrol our waterways. In the past year, there has been a 1,000% increase in drug seizures along the northern border and a 30% increase in illegal firearm seizures. President Biden’s immigration, economic, humanitarian and national security crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has in turn created a crisis at the U.S.-Canada border. He must put an end to this madness, protect the American people, and prioritize the well-being of our Border Patrol agents."

In Niagara Falls, residents say they’re staying out of the politics and focusing on the science.

"Common sense is what needs to prevail here," says Nirel Patel, president of Rupal Hospitality. "We're now 14 months, almost going on 15 months, into this pandemic. Science is there, we know what this virus is capable of, we know the precautions we need to take, we know that the most vulnerable in our societies need to be taken care of, and politics sometimes doesn't take that into consideration. Politics sometimes looks at it and says, 'Well, what benefits me the most?' I don't play by politics. I play by common sense."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state will lift most capacity restrictions on May 19, just in time for Memorial Day. Business owners say they have already seen demand coming back into the market, and claim the closed border is a mixed bag, because American tourists are forced to spend more time on the New York side of the falls. The biggest challenge is finding people to work.

"Supplemental unemployment has been one challenge," says Patel. "I would say, that is something that is needed for individuals that desperately need it. But we are open. We are open, we are looking for employees, we're looking for individuals and associates to come into the workplace, and really be brand ambassadors for Niagara Falls."

Locals admit this summer is a make-or-break year for Niagara Falls.

"We need a good year to make up for last year, 100%," says Weber.

"If you haven’t been here, come here because you won’t regret it," says Mayor Restaino. "If you’ve been here in the past, come back. It’s different, you’ll love it."